Voting Systems 53

The Tories have made an offer to the Lib Dems of a referendum on the alternative vote (AV) system.

I am not a supporter of AV. The fact that Labour and Tories can both support it, is a good indicator that it is not much of an improvement. Under AV you get to note a second choice on your ballot paper. The bottom candidate is eliminated and their second preferences re-allocated, until somebody gets over 50% of votes cast.

This system does not address the problem of proportionality – that the percentage of seats in parliament should broadly reflect the percentage of national votes cast. It is expected it would slightly improve proportionality, but that is a side effect and not inevitable. Indeed it can exagerrate the seat share of a dominant party. It most definitely does not help smaller parties, but rather tends to promote a flight to mediocrity – it puts a premium on being unobjectionable rather than exciting or different.

Party list systems are proportional, but I find them the worst of all as the parties can promote individual candidates who are personally unpalatable to the electorate. Under party list systems seats are allocated to parties according to the national or regional percentage of votes cast, and then those party seats are filled by the returning officer ticking down a party candidates list. The voter is voting for a party, not an individual.

The Scots system is a combination of AV, regionally topped up to add a proportional element from a party list. This is a horrible system.

By far the best system is single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies (STV). Under this system. large constituencies contain perhaps six or seven MPs. The voter gets a list of all candidates from all parties, and independents, and the voter can rank the actual individual candidates in order of preference from 1 to x. In a seven member constituency, a candidates needs 14.3% of the vote to be elected. If anyone gets that, their excess vote is distributed according to their second preferences, otherwise the person who came last is eliminated and their preferences distributed, ad infintum until you have seven people elected.

This gives a strongly proportional result nationally, encourages small parties and independent candidates, and gives the voter a wide choice of individual candidates.

The most quoted disadvantages of STV are the loss of the link between an MP and their small constituency, and the encouragement to the BNP.

On the constituency link, I think this is romantic tosh. Only the expenses scandal caused any signficant proportion of the electorate to be able to name their own MP. MPs would still have a strong regional link.

On the BNP, there is no region where they came anywhere near to getting 16%. But I am afraid to say that should the BNP be able to get that kind of level of support, I think they would be entitled to their MP.

So there we have it. In my view, STV is by far the best system and the only one worth changing to. I don’t believe AV is significantly better than FPTP.

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53 thoughts on “Voting Systems

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  • The Judge

    You’re absolutely right about the ‘constituency link’ – it really is sentimental garbage, especially when you remember how few MPs actually have their genuine main residence in the constituency they’re supposed to be representing.

    I would add a further refinement to the rules, and debar anyone from a candidacy for a ward or constituency unless they have had their sole/main residence in that ward/constituency for a minimum of three years prior to the date of the poll. That way we could stop the carpetbaggers and the Parachuted Regiment making a mockery of that very constituency link that the advocates of ‘keep things as they are’ are so precious about.

  • kathz

    Agreed. AV isn’t proportional. Party lists and AV plus give power to the parties. STV gives power to the voters, which is where it should be.

  • Jon

    Craig, in your view is a referendum fair (or constitutionally required) to move to a new voting system? I would support its introduction without a referendum, but suspect that opponents would cry foul.

  • Clark


    you say “Under AV you get to note a second choice on your ballot paper”. The Electoral Reform Society say you get to rank as many candidates as you wish. At a guess, I’d say that this would eventually make a big difference to how people would vote. Do you know exactly what is on offer to the Lib Dems from the Big Two parties?

    I, too, strongly favour STV. I agree about the irrelevance of the ‘constituency link’. I’d also like more than one MP to appeal to.

    But since reading comments from Amk on the previous thread, I’m starting to think that a true offer of true AV could be worth accepting, so long as there were strong protections against political interference with the boundaries. If it came to a referendum, I think AV would be more likely to gain popularity than STV, simply because it looks fairly similar to the current system. I also think that the big parties are unlikely to put an offer STV on the table.

  • amk

    Not mentioned by Craig is that under STV a constituent who needed to talk to their MP could choose the one they felt most comfortable with. A trade unionist may not be compelled to see a Tory as may be the case now.

    I posted more in the last thread and am not copying it over.

  • Jon

    @Clark – the speed with which Brown offered “voting reform” to the Lib Dems suggested to me that the Lib Dems could largely dictate which form of PR they were in favour of. The only trouble is, of course, getting it through Parliament without Conservative help.

  • Matt Keefe

    I’m unclear about one particular aspect of STV. How are the excess votes reallocated, and which votes are judged to be excess? Supposing a candidate needs 25% of the vote but receives 70%, which 25% of the votes cast are judged to be his, and which are passed on? Surely since the second preferences expressed on the ballots vary, this has a major impact on who comes second, third, fourth and so on. Is there some precise system of reallocating?

  • Clark


    Labour had already committed to a referendum on the electoral system (AV I think), but they removed the legislation from the ‘pending’ list in the ‘wash-up process’ that follows the announcement of a general election.

  • amk

    “How are the excess votes reallocated, and which votes are judged to be excess? Supposing a candidate needs 25% of the vote but receives 70%, which 25% of the votes cast are judged to be his, and which are passed on?”

    (S)He keeps a fraction of each individual vote (enough to maintain the winning level, same fraction for each vote), and the rest of each vote is redistributed.

  • amk

    It seems I’ve been describing the STV variant used in Ireland – which is probably the one we’d use anyway. See the above Wikipedia link for more exciting options.

  • Leo

    AV would mean an end to tactical voting, which would be a massive benefit in my opinion.

    How many people don’t vote for the party (or parties) they *really* want because they want to vote for the safer (but worse) party in order to prevent the really bad party getting in? I’d say a lot.

    AV+ or full PR seem unlikely. AV on its own would be a massive improvement and appears to be possible.

    Anyone offering just a referendum, though, should be ignored. The Tories are already saying that they’ll campaign against electoral reform should a referendum be introduced, and you can bet that Murdoch & friends will do their bit to put fear and confusion into people on the matter. A referendum on this issue is no different to just saying “no” and not worth a damn. In fact, it’d put the cause back, not forwards, as they could then say the public were asked and said no.

    I really don’t understand why everything else that government does, including some downright dodgy laws nobody in their right minds would have supported, can be pushed through without any kind of referendum and yet electoral reform supposedly cannot be as well.

    AV seems like a no-brainer to me, in terms of making voting fairer, and the only purpose of a referendum would be to trick people into thinking it was somehow dangerous and into saying “no” to it, maintaining the status quo which so greatly benefits the Tory party.

    Everyone keeps harping on about “the national interest” and “what the public wants” but it’s transparent that they’re talking about their own private interests. It is not in the national interest to keep this deeply unfair FPTP system which disenfranchises the majority of the electorate.

    Perhaps AV would not be fair either (no system really is), but it would be a hell of a lot fairer than what we have right now. I hope we can at least take that step in the right direction and that we don’t squander the chance, nor get tricked by empty promises.

  • Strategist

    I agree with this post up to a point, although I don’t think that it solves the question of how we get to having STV.

    I am also opposed to AV, but I don’t have the problem with the top up or additional member system in the same way as Craig, I don’t find its outcomes “horrible” in the London Assembly (nor in Scotland & Wales, so far as i can tell).

    Therefore, although I think it is an inferior system to STV, I would definitely settle for it if it was the only form of PR that I could get (I think we could move quickly to AV+ on the basis that this was the Jenkins Commission’s recommendation.)

    (Pedantic point: it’s not AV+top up in London, it’s FPTP in the individual constituencies plus top up – and I think that’s also the case in Scotland & Wales too – the system is usually called AMS)

    Second pedantic point, you do keep a constituency link in STV, but at the scale of a larger constituency. That’s really not a problem as the would be the size of a county, or a big city, which is the normal form of civic identity anyway (“I’m a Brummie”, “I’m a Man of Kent”, “I’m a South Londoner”, “I’m a Cornishman”) rather than the absurd constituencies with their shifting boundaries we have now. (Who on earth says “I’m Brent East, we don’t want your Brent North sort round ‘ere, this seat is for local people”. Oh whoops, in the boundary review I’ve been shifted from Brent East to Brent Central and I haven’t even moved house!

  • amk

    “tends to promote a flight to mediocrity – it puts a premium on being unobjectionable rather than exciting or different.”

    For the election of an executive an electoral system that tends to elect the centre is no bad thing. Politics is about compromise.

    For a legislature though you want a broad range of voices to be heard in the chamber.

    Point taken, and one I had forgotten.

  • grahams

    “Only the expenses scandal caused any signficant proportion of the electorate to be able to name their own MP.”

    I apologise for being critical but this is the sort of patronising put-down that one might expect an FO toff to make. As a lower middle class voter, I can only think of two people among dozens of friends, neighbours and relations of any voting age who would not know the name of their own MP. When I moved to a new area many years ago, it was the cleaner temporarily left over from the previous elderly owners who told me all about the MP, including his apt but unflattering nickname. Recognition doubtless depends on the newness of the MP and the voter but please do not underestimate ordinary folk. I am sure you mean well but perhaps you are confusing voters with the third of registered adults who do not vote.

  • PR now!!

    Nick Clegg should hold out for full PR from whoever of the two main parties.

    He can give them whatever else in the meantime in exchange.

    PR is the Holy Grail. It’s PR which will ensure democracy in this country in the future; a future that has been the essence of Liberals for years.

    Let us down on this and there’s no point in voting for you in the future.

    You have it all in your hands Nick.

  • PR now!!

    Oh yeah, and while I’m at it.

    Let’s get rid of authoritarian media.

    Why should unnacountable organisations have the power to broadcast their opinion to the exclusion of others?

    Is this a fascist state or what?

    Let’s just get rid of them.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    It’s worth noting that STV as practised in the Republic of Ireland has not only strengthened the constituency link, it has arguably resulted in a clientelist system of public representation. So much so that there are many voices calling for it to be abandoned.

    That’s not to say I’m not a supporter (I still think it the best option on balance), but it’s by no means a panacea.

  • angrysoba

    “The most quoted disadvantages of STV are the loss of the link between an MP and their small constituency, and the encouragement to the BNP.”

    Well, the problem I have with PR in general is that it actually strengthens party-systems and “party-loyalties”.

    If, for example, Craig Murray ran on a Lib Dem platform in constituency X under the present system and proved so popular he was voted in then he’d be an MP. But if he fell out with the Lib Dems on some issue he’d probably not be deselected unless he committed some grave act. Even if he were he could still get voted in by his constituents if they liked him.

    Now, if PR comes along then MPs could be selected by the parties according to how arselicky they are. Those who fall out with the party heirachy just get moved to the bottom of the list whereas those who are seen as party loyalists get moved up. We’d end up with a reshuffling of the political class whereby who gets elected to office will depend on who they know in the parties.

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to have two elected chambers? One on a PR basis and one on a constituency basis?

  • anno

    Thanks be to Gord. He has left his mark on this country in the form of trillions of pounds of lovely, secure, government usurious debt to the bankers and they have given him permission now to stand down and join the ranks of old leaders like the odious Ashdown and tedious John Major, who served the Zio-bankers’ interests before them.

    They keep asking for stable government when they mean, a stable economy, that can settle down and allow the banks to draw their blood from UK plc. Only it’s not just one litre, but every last drop they need. The voting system is irrelevant, because whoever gets in power is duly blackmailed to serve the bankers’ needs. ‘ We need a little signature on a United Nations proposal to knock out the industrial heart of Iran, before we give our M.P.s that is , from the friends of Israel cross-party, permission to back your budget, Mr sweet-nothings Prime Minister of the UK Rainbow Party-Coalition. We are sure you will agree. ‘

    Yesterday saw Gordon Brown signing his pension contract, while the Zio-BBC sweetly presented it as Brown sacrificing himself for the benefit of his country. The Beeb told us that the little libdems had single-handedly cut off the double headed giant’s heads off i.e. David Cameron and Gordon Brown, in one Jack the Giant Killer stroke. When we all know that Nick Clegg is just a warm-up, stand-up comic before the main performance starts.

    They main item on the bill of entertainment is a coalition of the two nasty Davids. David Miliband as head of New Labour, serving the Zio-banker lobby, David Cameron serving the establishment colonial, Franco-phobe, Islamo-loathe, old Tories. What part of any voting system would have the slightest effect on this country, when they so blatantly manipulate the existing electoral result, to achieve what suits them, the grey suits of this country? Obviously the one we’re not going to get, – PR. Not for the first time, a plague on all their houses, I say, because they are not, either of them, going to give us the British public what we so obviously deserve and need.

  • mary

    @ Grahams 1.08am

    Completely agree with you.

    I have always known who my MP is and their agenda is.

    In the European elections 2009, I had no idea who the candidates were apart from their party affiliation. They were just names on a list.

    There are always shades to every colour.

    ‘In total, 72 Members of the European Parliament were elected from the United Kingdom using proportional representation. (This figure would have been 73 if the Lisbon Treaty had entered into force by June 2009.) England, Scotland and Wales used the D’Hondt method of PR, whilst Northern Ireland used Single Transferable Vote (STV).’ Wikipedia

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